Form or Function?

Forma ou Função?

Mijksenaar, P.

Mijksenaar - Paul Mijksenaar Design

Retirado de:

RESUMO: Este paper trata da relação entre a forma e a função no âmbito de um projeto de design de informação, especificamente wayshowing.
Trata-se de uma explicação sobre o processo de criação de sistemas de wayshowing, compatibilizando aspetos estéticos, funcionais e simbólicos.
Alguns princípios de design são claramente provenientes de contextos próximos como o design industrial, o design gráfico, a morfologia e a psicologia experimental, ou da gestão de negócios e da construção.
Os resultados consistem na explanação de uma fórmula de três pontos: Confiabilidade, Utilidade, Satisfação.


PALAVRAS-CHAVE: Confiabilidade; Utilidade; Satisfação; Forma; Função; Design de Informação.


ABSTRACT: This paper deals with the relationship between form and function within an information design project, specifically wayshowing.
It is an explanation of the process of creating systems of wayshowing, making compatible aesthetic, functional and symbolic aspects.
Some design principles are clearly derived from close contexts such as industrial design, graphic design, morphology and experimental psychology, or business management and construction.
The results consist of an explanation of a three-point formula: Reliability, Utility, Satisfaction.


KEYWORDS: Reliability; Utility; Satisfaction; Form; Function; Information Design.

Some of the aspects involved clearly belong to the neighboring worlds of industrial design, graphic design, morphology, and experimental psychology, with here and there a dash of business studies and construction. Nevertheless, for the sake of clarity when discussing education and research, it is advisable to define the territory of visual information as precisely as possible. Such a definition facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration. Designers have a tendency to combine values and principles discovered by other disciplines into a workable whole that adds up to more than the sum of its parts, or, as Josef Albers put it: in design I + I sometimes equals 3 [1]. In view of countless earlier failures, an attempt to determine just what constitutes design would seem to be a precarious and impractical undertaking. and likely to throw up more questions than answers. Perhaps this is also because - as Robin Kinross asserts in his excellent essay Modern Typography – abstract debate has its limits, and theories about design depend in part on their translation into real products. [2]


Fig. 1

Analogue dashboard gauges in an automobile.                               Dynamic route map on the display of a        
Page from the Arabic version of the operating                                 Bosch Trovelpilot which can be mounted in
instructions for a Volvo 480.                                                             any automobile.Other versions include spoken directions. 


Designing what?

This question implies that designers 'do' what they do with something that already exists: just as a cook cooks with food and a gas stove, they work with information. This notion, however, is fast losing its meaning.
Since all interpersonal communication involves information of one kind or another, it would be better to talk about designing instructions for using a product. This could be an appliance or a tool or, equally, a service or a facility. A product may itself provide visual information. such as a clock, a calendar, a street map. a graph, a route indicator, a computer. But over and above this, the actual use of a product may entail additional visual information, such as can be found on a keyboard, a control panel, or in operating instructions.


Which form?

Today's motto is very much: 'function can take any form'. The phrase is an adaptation of the famous, sometimes disputed credo, 'form follows function. It crops up in every publication on this subject and the present one is no exception! It is usually attributed to the American architect Louis Sullivan, who introduced the proposition in a lecture given in 1896. In fact, historians trace it to Sullivan’s fellow-American, the sculptor Horatio Greenough, who had used it in Form and Function, written in 1851)[3]. Writing about the beauty of ships (he was thinking specifically of those superb, early-nineteenth-century motorized sailing ships the clippers), Greenough stated that it 'has been effected, first, by strict adaptation of forms to functions, second, by the gradual elimination of all that is irrelevant and impertinent'. Beauty was thus equated with functionalism. Commenting on this, the author of the book Industrial Design, John Heskett, remarked that “Clipper ships were certainly among the most beautiful creations of their age, but Greenough tended to ignore the degree of scientific calculation that went to determining their form. and the particular functional objectives for which they were designed . They were built for the opium trade with China, in which speed was necessary to evade government patrols and pirates alike; ... Calculations concerned with speed thus dictated the form of the hull, overriding optimum requirements for the inner working-structure and the organization of the ship, and in this secondary area, function had to be adapted to form” [4].


Fig. 2

Legend: American clipper ship Cowper. 1854. The TItanic. The huge. slanted funnels were dictated largely by aesthetic considerations.


Later on, Henry van de Velde and Le Corbusier praised these North Atlantic liners as examples of functionalism and of “pure. neat, clear, clean and healthy architecture”. Nonetheless, such ships contained plenty of features that had nothing to do with utility. The size and number of funnels were deliberately chosen to create a powerful impression of grandeur. The interior was designed to please and above all reassure the passengers, and to divert their attention from less agreeable aspects like seasickness and the dangers inherent in any sea voyage. These, too, were important functions [4]. Thus. confusion about the notions of functionalism and beauty is nothing new, for emotion and social and cultural needs also playa role in determining function. Many felt that a scrupulously honest approach to construction and materials would automatically take care of these needs.
Frank Lloyd Wright was not alone in stating that “the machine. with its tendency towards simplification, is capable of revealing the true nature and beauty of materials”. In 1992 Edward Tufte concluded anew that aesthetics are a happy by-product of the visual presentation of information [5]. “Form”, in other words, meant above all “beauty”, a notion that later appeared to fall into discredit, with beauty often being regarded as a bonus.
Design became first and foremost a tool for welding together construction and function. If the result was pleasing and showed good taste, the aesthetic dividend followed automatically. Walter Gropius, director of the Bauhaus, a school that cannot be omitted from this account, remarked in 1926 that designing houses and their interiors for the mass market was “more a matter of ingenuity than of passion'. And in his conviction that the artistic designer should attend the same school as the technical designer and design engineer, he was forty years ahead of Delft University's Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering” [6]. To the relief of many, it seems that 'beauty' can be successfully excluded from industrial design on the grounds of its alleged elusiveness. Yet designers know from experience that many rational iss~es playa role in the perception of beauty. One example noted by A. M. Bevers, professor of Arts and Humanities at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, is the human preference for (or aversion to) symmetrical and geometrical forms: “In the last instance, geometrical forms owe their aesthetic value to their useful, that is to say, structuring function. Perhaps we find something beautiful because it reminds us of the pleasure of an earlier experience, when something useful was experienced as pleasing. The experience of beauty has remained while the awareness of usefulness has disappeared” [7]. This accords with the verdict of the Belgian architect, furniture designer, and graphic designer, Henry van de Velde (1863- 1957) who said: “Beauty is the result of clarity and system”, adding, “and not of optical illusion”[8]. The only conclusion possible is that design always involves three inextricably related elements, however much their relative proportions may differ from one application to the next, namely: durability, usefulness, and beauty. In this respect, design is an activity that unites the elements of durability and usefulness and intensifies the perception of beauty. Without noticing it, we have gone back almost two thousand years to the Roman architect Vitruvius. In his ten-volume treatise on architecture! he stipulated that it should satisfy the following criteria:


Firmitas - durability, firmness

Utilitas - usefulness, commodity

Venustas - beauty, delight


Fig. 3


I have attempted to turn these qualities into a practical three-point formula: Reliability, Utility, Satisfaction. What sort of combination of these qualities produces a good product? To measure this I have devised a simple, star-shaped diagram consisting of three thermometer-like axes that can be used to register the relative strength of the three criteria in any given product. The length of these thermometers is theoretically unlimited. Since none of these qualities should ever register zero in my opinion, this value has been excluded from consideration. A circle indicates an average level below which no good product should fall, although it may, of course, always do better. This diagram makes it possible not only to indicate in advance the precise mix of qualities required in a given pro duct, but also to analyze existing products. Here, for example, are three comparisons I have worked out using the diagram:

  • Dutch Falk Street plans versus Michelin maps.
  • Dutch road signs versus English road signs.
  • An extending measuring spoon for coffee from t he largest Dutch coffee concem, Douwe Egberts (Sara Lee), versus a Swatch watch.

The advantage of this graphic form, apart from the fact that it allows priorities to be established for individual products, is that it is not susceptible to the kind of dogmas that may arise from too narrow an interpretation of functionality on the one hand, and of design on the other hand. What do I mean by dogmas in this context? Two examples will suffice: in 1920 Walter Portsmann, a German engineer, published a dissertation entitled Sprach und Schrift (Speech and Writing) in which he pointed out the advantages - chiefly greater efficiency - of using only Kleinschreibung. or lower-case, letters. The rationality of this work appealed to the imagination of the graphic designers of his day. They adopted his ideas but in the process they added their own ideological gloss: in abolishing capital letters they were also abolishing one of many superfluous hierarchies. In 1925, the Bauhaus officially abolished the use of capitals [2]. The measure was explained in the lower-left-hand corner of the writing paper designed for the school by Herbert Bayer: “we write everything in lower case because it saves time; besides, why have 2 alphabets if one achieves the same purpose? why write in capitals when we cannot speak in capitals?” At the same time the Bauhaus introduced the DIN A4 paper size and applied the 1924 DIN standard (no. 676) for the layout of writing paper. This dogma was later adopted by many Dutch designers including Piet Zwart, Willem Sandberg and the designers of the Amsterdam consultancy Total Design, who were still sticking resolutely to small letters when they designed the signage system for Amsterdam's new Schiphol Airport in 1967 - despite the fact that legibility research conducted in 1960 had shown what every typographer had long known, that the recognizability of names, especially in the kind of search operations involved in reading signposts and forms, increases significantly when each name or sentence begins with a capital letter [9].


Fig. 4

Legend: 1963 test models from the Road Research Laboratory in England. Researchers found that place names in small letters with initial capitals (right) were easier to recognize.


Another dogma of the period that saw the completion of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport was that pictograms served only to produce communicative “noise” and as such were inferior to what was, after all, perfectly unambiguous text. Yet the first red Michelin guide (hotels and restaurants) published in 1900 had already demonstrated the advantage of pictograms, namely their compactness. (Connoisseurs' attention is directed to the first line from the top, where a stylized symbol of the telegraph machine, designed by the Frenchman Claude Chappe, indicates the presence of a telex, and to the black diamond-shaped sign a few lines below this. indicating that the hotel has a darkroom.) Nevertheless, it was not until 1970 that Dutch Rail decided to introduce pictograms on a large scale in their station signage. They opted for a revised version of the standardized pictograms already adopted by the combined European railway companies and commissioned the Haguebased consultancy Tel Design (Gert Dumbar and Gert-Jan Leuvelink, among others) to design them.
Pictograms were also starting to appear in connection with various industrial products at this time. Among the pacesetters were Siemens (household appliances), Philips (audiovisual equipment) and Toyota (automobiles). Manufacturers had woken up to the distinct economic advantage of using pictograms in their instruction manuals: only one version for each product was needed. Henceforth consumers the world over received a multilingual booklet and the task of memorizing what all the little symbols meant. In the design of visual information in particular there is little room for eternal values, and the criteria change as easily as does consumer behavior. In May 1993 initial capitals were reinstated at Schiphol Airport and a large number of pictograms made their appearance. We return to the revised version of Vitruvius's three design virtues, combining design, reliability, and utility for the pleasure and satisfaction of users. Design after all has the unique capacity to shape information by

  • emphasizing or understating
  • comparing or ordering
  • grouping or sorting
  • selecting or omitting
  • opting for immediate or delayed recognition
  • presenting it in an entertaining fashion [5].

In general one can state that in the conceptual model, information should be as simple, clear, and unambiguous as possible. But when it comes to presentation, it can be enriched with a wealth of details, preferably applied at different levels. This way there is sure to be “something for everyone” [10].
A few “modern classic” examples of this approach are the Time-Life cookbook series, the Mitchell Beazley reference books, the Readers Digest handbooks, and the National Geographic Magazine. The challenge for researchers and designers is to continue to reveal the basic principles of design and to investigate whether it is possible to devise a common grammar for the transmission of information by means of picture and text [11].


Fig. 5

Legend: Use of pictograms on the remote control of a Phil ips television (2), Siemens appliances (3), and on a Dutch Rail sign board (4).


Notas and Bibliographic References

[1] – Albers, J. – Search Versus Research, Hartford 1969

[2] – Kinross. R. – Modem Typography: An essay in critical history. London 1992

[3] – Owen, C, – Style, Styling and Design: Beyond Formalism: in: Design Processes Newsletter. 199 I, no. 3, pp. 7- 10

[4] – Heskett, j . – Industrial Design. London 1980. 1987

[5] – Patton, P. – Up from flatland: in: The New York Times Magazine, 19 january 1992. pp. 28- 3 I, 61

[6] – Groot. A. de, – Rationeel en functioneel bouwen I 840-1920, catalogue: He! Nieuwe Bouwen' Voorgeschiedenis, Delft 1982

[7] – Bevers, AM. – Vonn en Funcrie: Esthetiek van de socio/e re/ades, Intreerede Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam 1991

[8] – Wolff, M. de. – Over Henry van de Velde: in: de Volkskrant, I I September 1992

[9] – Mijksenaar. P. P. – Typografie bij bewegwijzering. Of: de strijdtussen esthetiek en ekenliniaal: In: GrafJcus Revue, 1971, no. 3, pp. 12-30

[10] – Norman. D. A. – The Psychology of Everyday Things, New York. 1988

[11] – Advertisement Ministry of WVC, Adformatie, 15 August 1991


Author's Note

This paper is a chapter of the book: MIJKSENAAR, Paul - Visual Function: An Introduction to Information Design. New York: 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 1997. ISBN 90 6450 303 6

Reference According to APA Style, 5th edition:
Mijksenaar, P. ; (2009) Form or Function?. Convergências - Revista de Investigação e Ensino das Artes , VOL II (3) Retrieved from journal URL: